Kids Still Aren't Safe Enough
Despite Progress, Lead Exposure FoundJan 14, 2003 | The Cincinnati Enquirer
On one hand, Cincinnati is an example of the progress that can be made in preventing children from being exposed to toxic lead-based paint.
On the other hand, Cincinnati is an example of how far public health officials, housing regulators and property owners have to go to eliminate a still-common hazard to healthy childhood development.
So says Kenneth Olden, director of the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences, who is visiting Cincinnati this week to meet with University of Cincinnati researchers and other groups involved in the issue.
"In one sense, this is a public health success story, but there are still many areas where children are being poisoned by lead paint," Dr. Olden said. "I want to hear more from the American people about what agencies like ours can be doing for them."
Years ago, lead was commonly used in gasoline and paint. Since lead was banned from gasoline, the main source of lead exposure in America has been from paint flaking off older buildings.
Lead exposure damages the brain, nervous system, kidneys and other tissues. At high levels, it can be deadly. At chronic lower levels, lead can hurt learning ability, damage short term memory, even increase the likelihood of criminal behavior.
In 2000, more than 4,000 Cincinnati children were found to have unhealthy levels of lead in their blood, according to tests conducted in Over-the-Rhine, the West End, Avondale and other neighborhoods with large amounts of older housing.
That's down from nearly 12,000 children with lead poisoning detected in 1996.
At least some of that progress reflects real reductions in lead exposure, said Bill Menrath, a UC environmental health researcher and chairman of the Cincinnati Area Lead Advisory Committee.
But the figures also reflect a 65 percent reduction in the number of children who were tested. No one knows how the numbers would have looked had more children been tested, he said.
"In general, kids are safer today than they were 10 years ago, but they aren't safe enough," Dr. Menrath said. "In some neighborhoods, 25 percent of the kids getting tested are poisoned."
While researchers have detailed numerous health problems linked to lead, they have been less successful at finding cost-effective ways to reduce exposure.
Lead paint can be eliminated from an apartment, at a cost of several thousand dollars, by "enclosing" walls and floors with new paneling or drywall. Risks also can be reduced by using special "encapsulating" paints. Even frequent, detailed cleanings can help.
But researchers have found that lead-laced street dust tracked inside can recontaminate a clean apartment within months, sometimes weeks. So now, more focus has been placed on controlling lead-paint flaking from thousands of aging, ill-kept buildings in dozens of older American cities.
Cincinnati is one of a few areas nationwide where lead-control practices are being studied in depth, Dr. Olden said.
Here, researchers spent two years - from May 2000 to May 2002 - testing different types of sidewalk sweeping machines to control dust along Vine Street in Over-the-Rhine. The sweepers did reduce lead levels, but nowhere near low enough to meet federal standards.
More recently, several building exteriors in Over-the-Rhine have been carefully renovated in an effort to measure the costs and benefits of strictly enforcing building code regulations to control flaking paint.
As studies continue, laws already have started changing. In Ohio, a long-debated lead hazard control bill was signed into law this month by Gov. Bob Taft.
The law regulates many aspects of lead hazard control, from how to license lead-abatement contractors to what landlords must do when lead hazards are detected.
"Some of us have been fighting for this law for 10 years," said Marcheta Gillam, a Legal Aid Society attorney and a long-time lead-paint control advocate.
With the state law in place, city action may be next.
Several proposed changes to health and housing codes could be sent to Cincinnati City Council within a week, said Malcolm Adcock, city health commissioner.
But costs remain a major issue. A pilot project proposed by the lead advisory committee would have cost about $600,000, Dr. Adcock said. A city-wide enforcement program could cost even more.
"Everybody understands, or should understand, the lack of resources in the city budget right now," Dr. Adcock said.